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October 6, 2009

Kathleen Kent: Book Clubs, a Seat of Womanly Wisdom

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Kathleen Kent's debut novel, The Heretic's Daughter, takes places during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. The story is narrated by Sarah Carrier, whose mother, Martha, was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch. As Kathleen shares in today's guest blog post, many of the reading group members with whom she has discussed the book have been surprised by how recognizable, even more than 300 years later, many of the characters' challenges were.

Click here for information on the book and the town of Salem, and to invite Kathleen Kent to join your book club discussion. You can also share your comments about the novel on The Heretic's Daughter Facebook page.

My perception as a teenager growing up in Texas, typical of the young and the arrogant, was that it had little to offer in the way of home-grown literary expression other than the true grit Westerns by novelists like Zane Grey. And the book clubs of my mother's era, attended by the neighborhood moms, appeared to be little more than opportunities to swap recipes and report on either the over-sentimentalized novels of Eudora Welty, or the guilty pleasures of the "bodice rippers"; romance paperbacks the ladies could sneak from the shelves of the local Piggly Wiggly. What I didn’t understand then, but what I understand more fully now, is that the neighborhood book clubs are, and have always been, proving grounds for women's wisdom.

Since publishing The Heretic's Daughter, a novel based on the events of the Salem witch trials and of Martha Carrier, my grandmother back nine generations, I've had the opportunity to speak in person to dozens of book clubs in Texas, and by phone to gatherings across the country. I've been enlivened and constantly surprised by the diversity of the membership and structure of the groups. What is consistent is the emotional resonance in response to the fortitude, courage and resourcefulness of the women who settled the American wilderness. In fact, many of the readers were surprised at how recognizable the characters' challenges were; the conflict between a mother and her daughter, adolescent peer pressure, the damage done to a community through gossip and rumor-mongering.

Some of the most interesting, and emotionally charged, discussions though have included Martha Carrier's decision to continue to proclaim to her innocence, even when she knew that the consequences would be imprisonment and death by hanging. By the time of her trial, other accused women in Salem had been sentenced to hang for not admitting to witchcraft. Traditional womanly wisdom, something that is deeply felt, and at times unreasoning, will often tell us to do what ever is necessary to stay with, and protect, our children. But Martha chose to honor the truth, trusting that her husband would continue to raise their five children if she should be executed. An important and timely question for readers that can be discussed in a book group is, though we may be sisters, daughter, wives and mothers, where do we each draw the line for our own individual truths and say to the powers that be, "Past this point you shall not go"?

---Kathleen Kent